This week’s highly controversial confirmation vote of Betsy DeVos to be U.S. secretary of education underlined one of the most contentious issues in education—whether public funds should be used for private school vouchers. But moving forward, there will be other education questions upon which there is broad bipartisan consensus. Nearly everyone agrees, for example, that we need to take steps to strengthen America’s community colleges.

Two-year colleges are a critical gateway for the nation’s aspiring middle class, yet today they fall far short of their goals. In a 2013 report, Bridging the Higher Education Divide, a Century Foundation task force on community colleges noted that 81 percent of first-time, first-year students say they would ultimately like to transfer to a four-year college and get a bachelor’s degree, yet after six years, only 12 percent do so.

The task force, chaired by Eduardo Padron and Anthony Marx, and supported by the Ford Foundation, concluded that community colleges are too often set up for failure because they tend to educate students with the greatest needs yet receive the fewest resources. Private research universities spend five times as much per student as community colleges, and public research universities almost three times as much. Research universities are charged with advancing human knowledge, not just educating students, but when one isolates funds going to student instruction, large gaps between four- and two-year colleges remain.

Century’s task force recommended that a rigorous study be conducted of what it costs to provide a strong community college education, and what additional premium in funding should be provided to those community colleges which educate large numbers of disadvantaged students.

These types of costing-out studies are routine at the K–12 level, where researchers in dozens of states have estimated the cost of providing an “adequate” education (to use a term of art), and what additional funds should flow to disadvantaged students.

By contrast, there has been no sustained, comprehensive effort to cost out an adequate community college education. And that’s for good reason. It’s very challenging to estimate costs given heterogeneity of outcome goals in different institutions and programs, and different cost structures.

This week, however, a Century Foundation Working Group on Community College Financial Resources met to begin the work of thinking through how K–12 costing out analysis might be applied to community colleges. The twenty-member group, supported with generous funding from the William T. Grant Foundation, consists of some the nation’s leading researchers in K–12 and higher education funding, as well as experts in higher education policy. (See the list of Working Group Members below.)

The Working Group will wrestle with several key questions: Where do K–12 costing out principles apply to community colleges, and where do they need to be modified? What is the best way to define outcomes for community colleges? What are the critical ingredients necessary for success? In thinking about which students deserve extra financial support, how do we best define disadvantage? What are the extra costs associated with institutions that have concentrated need? What are the costs associated with different disciplines, different geographic locations, and different college sizes?

To guide the group’s work, The Century Foundation (TCF) is commissioning three papers. Bruce Baker of Rutgers University and Jesse Levin of the American Institutes of Research are tackling the question of how K–12 costing out analysis might apply to community colleges. Anthony Carnevale, Jeff Strohl and Tanya Garcia of Georgetown University are analyzing the appropriate metrics by which to judge community college outcomes. And TCF scholars Robert Shireman, Halley Potter, Kimberly Quick, and I are examining how the research can be translated into good public policy.

Because the Working Group is trying to do something that’s never been done before, we will surely not come up with a perfect answer. But whatever we suggest will likely advance the ball.

The Working Group plans to hold five in-person meetings over the course of the next two years. Releasing background papers along the way, the Working Group’s work will culminate in the release of recommendations providing a framework for how costing out analysis should be applied to community colleges.

Because the Working Group is trying to do something that’s never been done before, we will surely not come up with a perfect answer. But whatever we suggest will likely advance the ball. Today, policymakers make decisions about what resources are necessary to provide a good community college education mostly based on raw political power, with virtually no research basis of support. TCF hopes to provide a stronger research foundation for how critical funding decisions are made—decisions that have an important impact on individual students, on our economy, and on the nation’s democracy. Stay tuned.

Century Foundation Working Group Members

Thomas Bailey (Columbia University)
Bruce Baker (Rutgers University)
Brooks Bowden (North Carolina State University)
Anthony Carnevale (Georgetown University)
Debbie Cochrane (The Institute for College Access and Success)
Michelle Cooper (Institute for Higher Education Policy)
Russ Deaton (Tennessee Department of Education)
Wil Del Pilar (Pennsylvania Department of Education)
David Deming (Harvard University)
Sara Goldrick-Rab (Temple University)
Harry Holzer (Georgetown University)
Tammy Kolbe (University of Vermont)
Jesse Levin (American Institutes for Research)
Bridget Long (Harvard University)
Tatiana Melguizo (University of Southern California)
Gail Mellow (LaGuardia Community College)
Andrew Nichols (Education Trust)
George Pernsteiner (State Higher Education Executive Officers)
Ken Redd (National Association of College and University Business Officers)
Jennifer Rice (University of Maryland)
Robert Toutkoushian (University of Georgia)
Richard D. Kahlenberg (Century Foundation), Executive Director

Editor’s note: This piece has been updated as of March 10, 2017, to reflect the addition of the newest working group member: Gail Mellow of LaGuardia Community College.